When India and China undertook the Wuhan process earlier this year, it was seen as a tactical move by both countries to avoid distractions. Prime Minister Modi wanted to focus on the 2019 elections and rule out dangerous confrontations like the one at Doklam the year before. President Xi had his hands full with Trump’s aggressive trade posture and wanted to prevent New Delhi from cementing its ties with a clutch of American military allies in Asia Pacific.
Both have succeeded in their limited objective. The Sino-Indian border is quiet, even though the Chinese have stepped up construction of facilities and infrastructure along its length. Speaking at the Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore earlier this year, Modi has made it clear that ‘Indo-Pacific’ to him was merely a geographic, not geopolitical construct. Despite a lot of breathless commentary, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) involving India, the US, Japan and Australia has remained a talking shop and its strategic framework is still unclear.None of this means that things will not change. But the direction of the change is even now not clear. This is evident from the moves of all the principal players — China, India, Japan and the US. At the end of October, Japan had its Wuhan moment when, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the first official prime ministerial visit to China since 2011. At the end of the visit, he declared that Sino-Japanese relations would now move ‘from competition to coexistence’. In turn, President Xi Jinping called for closer relations between the two difficult East Asian neighbours at a time of growing global ‘instability and uncertainties’.
More important, Japan announced its decision to participate in 50 infrastructure joint projects, an action tantamount to endorsing the Belt and Road Initiative in all but name. Next to China, Japan is a major infrastructure player in Southeast Asia and Africa and cooperation with China would provide the former with considerable expertise the Japanese have in this area. This is something the Chinese need in view of the many setbacks they are facing in unrolling their BRI. The Japanese and Chinese economies are closely intertwined and denser cooperation will be beneficial for Japanese companies as well and provide a hedge against the uncertainties of the Japan-US relationship, in the midst of a negotiation of a bilateral trade agreement.As for India and China, conflict and competition has always gone hand in hand with cooperation. India may have been the first country to oppose the BRI, but it is one of the founder members of the Beijing-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Likewise, last year India became a full member of the Beijing-sponsored Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
Following the Wuhan summit at the end of April, the Indian side had also spoken of the need to ensure stability amidst ‘current global uncertainties’. Both sides had emphasised the importance of ‘strategic communications’, code word for high-level interaction, and they have followed this up by ministerial contacts through the year and already met twice since Wuhan. Their fourth meeting will take place on the sidelines of the G-20 later this month.
At Wuhan, the two sides also agreed to carry out joint economic projects in Afghanistan, something that could provide a template for the kind of third-country projects that Japan and China appeared to have agreed on. Formally, the two sides still remain committed to the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor and this could be a future area of focus.
All this should also be seen in the context of signals that the US may be on the verge of some kind of a deal with China. Trump caused some consternation in his press conference of November 7 when he said ‘China got rid of their China 25 because I found it very insulting…’ This was an obvious reference to Made in China 2025, a major point of contention between China and the US. Most analysts discounted the remark and felt that maybe Trump misspoke. But it is possible that the Chinese have been discussing serious concessions in that area in their talks with the US.
Many of these developments are like straws in the wind of our uncertain times. Even as they talk of trade, the gulf between the US and China on issues like the South China Sea, Taiwan and China’s ill-treatment of religious minorities is only growing.
Even while Japan and China enhance cooperation with each other, so do Tokyo and New Delhi, and the US and India. Japan has played a significant role in enhancing connectivity in India and is now moving to third countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Africa.
Even though the India-Japan security partnership may be working below its potential, it is making important gains. The recent agreement to scale up their Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) cooperation and Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) has important implications for Indo-Pacific security.
All this really means that contrary to the idea that we are entering the era of a New Cold War, we are actually in an era where countries have a sharper idea of their national interest and are not restrained by any orthodoxy in pursuing them. So, relations between two countries can see conflict, cooperation and coexistence. It would be a dangerous fallacy to see relationships in purely binary frameworks that end up promoting false choices.
The Tribune November 13, 2018